Does the language used in the three verses referencing the release of a prisoner at the feast suggest anything about the timing of such a release?

In Matthew and Mark it is the Feast and in John it is the Passover. Does this suggest he would customarily do it ON Passover Feast day (15th Nisan) or leading up to it?

Matthew 27:15 (All ESV and mGNT)

Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted.

κατὰ δὲ ἑορτὴν εἰώθει ὁ ἡγεμὼν ἀπολύειν ἕνα τῷ ὄχλῳ δέσμιον ὃν ἤθελον

Mark 15:6

Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked.

κατὰ δὲ ἑορτὴν ἀπέλυεν αὐτοῖς ἕνα δέσμιον ὃν παρῃτοῦντο

John 18:39

But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?”

ἔστιν δὲ συνήθεια ὑμῖν ἵνα ἕνα ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν ἐν τῷ πάσχα βούλεσθε οὖν ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν τὸν βασιλέα τῶν Ἰουδαίων

Clearly, establishing that it does suggest a timing would impact our understanding of the passion chronology. However, I ask that answers please refrain from getting into Passion chronology that is outside the basic intent of the question. Also debates on whether such an event or custom existed. If such a suggestion and impact does exist, it should be able to exist independently out of the text.

This is just a Greek exegesis question.

  • Joshua, if this is a Greek exegesis question, it is out of scope for this site. I believe a Greek site is proposed :) Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 3:38
  • @DickHarfield Well until there is one, that specifically includes Koine Greek, I suppose I will impose on the generosity of this community to try and help me?
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 4:29
  • @DickHarfield If you want to comment or work it into your conclusion that's fine of course, but by debate I mean full blown arguments. That would be for History.SE to discuss.
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 13:54
  • I accept your challenge, hoping that this answer is of use to you. I went beyond the Greek of just these passages, to look at the authors' intentions in respect to chronology. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 0:57
  • @DickHarfield I'd love to discuss further chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/28580500#28580500
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 1:08

1 Answer 1


In the synoptic gospels, κατὰ is the word used for 'at' in "Now at the feast ..." When used in a temporal sense, κατὰ generally means 'throughout' or 'during'.

We know that the trial and crucifixion take place on (during) the feast day, the day of the Passover, which begins at sundown (Thursday evening in our calendar) with Passover feast celebrated as the Last Supper:

Mark 14:16-18: And his disciples went forth, and came into the city, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the passover. And in the evening he cometh with the twelve. And as they sat and did eat, Jesus said, Verily I say unto you, One of you which eateth with me shall betray me.

John's Gospel uses the preposition ἐν which has a wider range of meanings. When used in a temporal sense it could mean 'during' but can also be used for 'about' or broadly 'during the time of' (cf Mark 1:9, "in those days ..."). John need not mean that the the release of a prisoner took place during the actual feast day.

John 18:39 has no necessary difference in timing, except that we know from John 19:14 that it was not yet the day of the feast:

John 19:14: And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King!

In summary: The language in Mark 15:6, Matthew 27:15 is consistent with Pilate's words being spoken on the day of the Passover, and we know from Mark chapter 14 that it was indeed the day of the Passover. The language in John 18:39 is consistent with Pilate's words being spoken on the day of preparation for the Passover, and we know from John 19:14 that it was the day prior to the Passover.

  • Setting last supper chronology aside, do you think the Greek is suggesting that Pilate is saying "at the feast [that is to come]" or "at the feast [that you ate last night]"? I'd like to chat more about the Synoptic chronology, as we have briefly discussed before. I strongly disagree that the synoptics are in any way unified in claiming the trial and crucifixion on the 15th. So such a presupposition, from my perspective, taints any analysis that isn't independent. And so we're clear: "The Greek is inconclusive" is a perfectly acceptable answer. :)
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 1:03
  • Yes, I think it is fair to say the Greek of the nominated passages is inconclusive. The synoptic Greek uses κατὰ which I think is more likely to mean 'during' (ie on the 15th); John's Greek uses ἐν which I think could mean 'during' but is less likely to. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 1:07

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